The NHL’s coronavirus pause – Scenarios for fanless games, impact on 2020-21 and more

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It has been 39 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season, and the cancellations and postponements related to the coronavirus continue to stack up.

As players, executives and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will provide updates every Monday, answering all the burning questions about the various angles of the NHL’s relation to the pandemic. Although on-ice action remains on the shelf, there have been some intriguing developments since last week’s update. Get caught up here:

Has there been an update on when play could resume?

Greg Wyshynski: The NHL extended its self-quarantine recommendation for players and staff to April 30, the third time the league has extended it since the 2019-20 regular season was paused on March 12, with 189 games left on the schedule before the playoffs.

Under what conditions can the NHL return to play?

“The short answer to that is that, first of all, we’ll follow the directions of the appropriate public health authorities. That goes without saying,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr told ESPN on Saturday. “When and if they say — and obviously we hope it’s sooner rather than later — that they can declare it safe under certain conditions, we’ll adhere to those guidelines. The NHL has retained specific infectious disease specialists, as have we, everyone is working together. You will do everything you can to make sure it’s as safe as it can be. If there’s enough reasonable risk, it’s hard to see coming back.”

Thus, the “when” of this decision is overshadowed by the “how.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said it best on Friday: “It’s about the data, and not the date.”

Like the NHL, the NBA “isn’t in a position to make any decisions” on resuming its season, because “there is still too much uncertainty at this point to say precisely how we move forward,” Silver said, adding that “it’s unclear when we will be.”

But there are some in hockey circles who remain optimistic that the season can be completed. One of them is Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, whose team sits three points out of a playoff spot with 69 games played. Coach Q said “it sounds like it’s a little more optimistic in the last couple of days than it’s been at any point in the process” when it comes to a restart.

“We’re in a situation where we would love to play, and I think that the enthusiasm we’ve seen in the last little while … hopefully that’s going to happen,” Quenneville said on a conference call last week. “In the meantime, I think there’s a little bit more excitement right now, where I think we’re talking hockey, and we’re thinking, ‘Hey, it could happen.’ And hopefully soon.”

Wayne Gretzky is also in the camp that we’ll see NHL hockey this summer. “I really believe somehow, some way, that the leadership in this country and in Canada, that we’re going to figure this out,” Gretzky said. “And I really believe that we’ll see hockey and some sort of other sports in June, July and August, albeit in a different way, but I really see it coming to fruition. I think it’s going to happen.”

One reason for that optimism: The U.S. government seems to want sports back.

I heard Dr. Fauci mention something about playing this summer with no fans. Is that realistic?

Wyshynski: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he believes the only way sports will return this summer is inside of empty buildings.

“There’s a way of doing that,” Fauci told Snapchat’s Peter Hamby. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled. … Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”

Last week, President Donald Trump put together an advisory committee that involved the heads of nearly every major sports association, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “We have to get our sports back,” Trump said at a news conference.

But when and where those sports come back is another issue. Consider, for example, the inconsistent restrictions on travel and mass gatherings across the United States and Canada. Does the “green light” to restart come from the states or the federal government?

“It’s obviously going to be some combination of those,” Fehr said. “You’re going to want to know what the CDC says, without any question at all. But in addition to that, as we all know, the state governors and the provincial prime ministers have the basic responsibilities over their own jurisdictions, so you’re going to have to work with them too. The implication of your question is whether it’s OK to play in some places and not others. I don’t know if that’s true. I assume it’s certainly possible. If it is, we’ll see what makes sense.”

Have any cities/regions emerged as front-runners to host NHL games?

Emily Kaplan: Last week, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL was fielding calls from cities and venues across North America that were pitching themselves as potential hosts, but the NHL hadn’t narrowed down a list yet. “We do have people putting together the comprehensive laundry list of what we would need from facilities and evaluating some facilities on some level,” Daly said. “But I can’t tell you we’ve even finished creating a list [of potential sites], much less narrowed it down.”

Fehr confirmed this weekend that the NHL was in early stages of planning on this, as he noted the players’ union hadn’t had any specific discussions with the league yet about potential sites. “Other than the general understanding that they’re looking at all possibilities, which includes neutral sites — neutral being defined as a place that isn’t a home base for an NHL team — we haven’t had those discussions yet,” Fehr said.

On Friday, Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire made waves when he confirmed that he had talks with the NHL about having games in Manchester, at the home of Southern New Hampshire University.

“There is truth to that,” Sununu told WEEI in Boston. “It would be a very interesting opportunity for New Hampshire, but even the venues would have to say, ‘Yes, we want this,’ because we’ve got to make sure what are the liabilities here, what if a team were to get sick, how is it going to be managed? So we’re working through some of those logistics, but that’s on the table, for sure.”

That brings up the ethical concern of staging an NHL event in a rural area with no lockdown mandates. We posed that issue to Fehr on Saturday.

“Obviously, it would seem to me that the governors or the provincial premiers of any such locations, for them to be interested, would have first and foremost in their mind the health and safety of their own residents,” Fehr said.

What about NHL games with fans in the building?

Wyshynski: That’s likely a conversation for the 2020-21 season, at the earliest. But team owners are already thinking about what that might look like.

As we previously reported, the Carolina Hurricanes were modeling what games with a capped, smaller capacity for social distancing might look like. But on Friday, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said he’s hopeful that when fans are allowed to return to the arena for games, it would be for all fans, without restrictions. “I would really like to find a way [where sports are] a communal resource, and that we can have everyone participate,” Leonsis said in a video chat with the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

Leonsis isn’t fond of “profiling” fans for COVID-19 as they enter the arena. “That’s one thing that I don’t believe in,” he said. “It’s more about a vaccine, so that we can not have to profile.”

But again, we’re a long way away from these decisions. Plus, no one is sure when fans will be comfortable enough to return to sporting events en masse. Around 72 percent of Americans polled by Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business recently said they would not attend if sporting events resumed without a vaccine for the coronavirus — although the sample size of that survey (762) was limited.

If the NHL plays late into the summer, how would that impact next season?

Kaplan: That’s something the NHL is grappling with and can’t quite answer until more pieces fall into place. Bettman has said it’s a priority for the league to try to have as much “normalcy” as possible in the 2020-21 schedule. But that might not be possible if the Stanley Cup Final is (theoretically) played in August.

“First thing you’ve got to do is determine if you can play this year at all,” Fehr said. “See how long people play, and then look at what the possibilities are to back up the season if you need that additional break in between, as you likely would.”

In a typical season, teams that play in the Stanley Cup Final get three months off before they have to report to training camp. (Everyone else, obviously, gets more time than that.)

“If you did the schedule for next year, starting several weeks late — that’s not a suggestion or a prediction, it’s an example — then you would look at how you could modify that schedule so as to ease the burdens on the players during the year, create as much time off between when they actually stop playing and when the season started,” Fehr said. “And whether or not you should go a little longer next year.”

A three-month break sounds aspirational at this point, but the players will need some proper offseason, and not just a “stay at home, train, and see if we can resume” situation like we have now. How much time does that need to be? Fehr didn’t articulate, but whatever is decided will have to be negotiated between the NHLPA and the league.

Sources say that beginning next season in November is an idea that the NHL has discussed, as is the possibility of canceling the All-Star Game, scheduled for South Florida, and doing away with bye weeks to create a more condensed schedule. To be clear: Those are just ideas that have been floated; nothing is set in stone.

A lot of players returned to Europe. Is there a concern that they won’t be able to make it back for a playoffs this summer?

Kaplan: Fehr sounded confident that this wouldn’t be an issue. “In that circumstance, we obviously have our own resources, our own lawyers in both countries, the U.S. and Canada,” Fehr said. “The NHL obviously has its own people, and as you know, employers ordinarily have the primary responsibility for visas and exit and entry of people that have work permits and so on. So we’ll do that.”

That said, there is one thing that could hold up any potential planning, according to Fehr: “If borders are still closed, if borders between the U.S. and Canada are still closed, it’s going to be very difficult to do anything.”

What did Drew Doughty say that ruffled feathers last week? Did he have a point?

Wyshynski: The Los Angeles Kings‘ star defenseman was one of the first, and most prominent, pessimistic voices about restarting the season. “I don’t see how this season is going to return. I really don’t,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “We have no idea when this virus is going to be over. We’re all kind of just sitting at home, just hoping to return to the season or hoping to watch the playoffs return. But we’re just sitting here, waiting, working out, being ready to return at any point.”

Now, the Kings are 14 points out of a playoff spot. Would he feel differently about the NHL returning to finish the season if the Kings were in championship contention? “Yeah, for sure,” Doughty said with a laugh.

While some focused on that winking hypocrisy, Doughty’s comments might offer some insight into the thinking of peers whose teams are a country mile outside a playoff spot. What would compel a Red Wing or a Senator or a Shark to be optimistic, or enthusiastic, about a return to play the regular season? To serve as fodder for playoff teams while potentially risking their health to do so?

“It depends on how many games you play,” Fehr said. “It’s not just a couple of games, it’s eight or 10 for most teams. Start with that. But you’re not going to go back without an appropriate training period and that has to take into account the very unusual circumstances we’re dealing with. Nobody is going to go back on three days, or something like that. Obviously, we’ll sit down with the NHL when we get there. If it’s possible to finish the regular season when we get there, we’ll see what kind of training camp is feasible and whether that’s sufficient. But it’s virtually impossible to do that in a vacuum.”

Are teams still conducting business while everyone is self-isolating?

Kaplan: As best they can, remotely. We saw several significant transactions this week:

  • The Winnipeg Jets and Dustin Byfuglien mutually agreed to terminate the defenseman’s contract on Friday, resolving his grievance against the club — and a saga that had been brewing since he didn’t report to training camp. Byfuglien, 35, is now an unrestricted free agent, but we may have seen him play his last NHL game if he has indeed decided to retire.

  • Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets inked breakout goalie Joonas Korpisalo to a two-year extension, reportedly worth $5.6 million. Korpisalo, 26, was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

  • The Blues were quite busy this week. They signed 23-year-old winger Sammy Blais to a two-year extension, with an average annual value of $1.5 million. St. Louis also signed defenseman Marco Scandella to a four-year deal, with an annual salary-cap hit of $3.275 million. The Blues had acquired Scandella at the trade deadline in February from the Canadiens for a 2020 second-round pick. In order to extend Scandella, St. Louis also had to send Montreal its 2021 fourth-round pick.

What’s the latest salary-cap projection for next season?

Wyshynski: There continues to be speculation around the league that the salary cap next season will remain flat at $81.5 million, but that’s yet to be determined. NBC analyst Pierre McGuire created a stir last week when he told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh that the salary cap could “drop anywhere from 25 to 40 percent” due to this season’s revenue shortfall, absent any remedy from the NHL and the NHLPA.

That was echoed by Fehr. “The salary cap would fall automatically, based on the formula, unless there’s an agreement to do something else if revenue turns down,” the NHLPA chief told ESPN. “That said, there has never been a situation like this. Nobody ever imagined anything like this. So we will be having discussions with the NHL over the next several weeks to try and figure it out. But nothing has been decided, and there are a whole raft of things that have to be decided that are part of the same package.”

Things like the economic impact from this season’s pause.

“The other thing is we don’t have a real sense of what revenue loss is going to be this year. We don’t know whether there’s going to be a revenue loss next year. And that makes the process of coming to a conclusion on this much less certain than it would otherwise be,” said Fehr.

Is there anything new on the revenue shortfall and the players’ escrow?

Wyshynski: The NHLPA has decided to push its decision on what to do with the players’ final paycheck — which was due on April 15 — until May 15. This was based on the communication between the team player reps and the NHLPA leadership. The players are debating whether to hand over part, all or none of their final check to the owners to begin offsetting the expected revenue shortfall this season. The decision buys them some time, in an effort to find out more about a potential season restart and any effects on the 2020-21 season.

As for the larger escrow picture, for next season and in subsequent seasons, Fehr said it all depends on what the NHL and the NHLPA decide is the best remedy for that gap between what the players made and the revenues the owners pulled in.

“That depends on discussions we’ve yet to have with the NHL, and what the players decide to do, given the potential alternatives that could be agreed upon with the NHL,” Fehr. “But the things we don’t know yet are what the extent of the revenue loss [is] going to be this year, and therefore what’s the magnitude of the escrow issue which is raised; secondly, what happens next year, and; third, what’s the cap next year? Once we wrap our arms around all of those things, we go to the NHL, see what’s conceivable, go back to the players and say ‘here are your options,’ and we need to discuss which ones are more preferable. None of the options are good. Nobody expected this. Nobody anticipated it.”

Have any more players tested positive? Have any positive cases recovered?

Kaplan: There were no new reports of any positive tests this week. We did get word from Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar that the three players on his team who tested positive have all recovered.

“As far as I know, they’re all doing good and back with their families,” Bednar said. “Those guys are lucky and were lucky there wasn’t anything too serious with their symptoms. They were able to come through it without any major complications.”

Speaking of testing, it’s believed that if the NHL does find a way to return this summer, access to quick-turnaround testing would be a must. “Testing is obviously better than not,” Fehr said. “I assume it’s going to be widely available and we’ll be able to get it just like everybody else, and if it’s available, I assume that we’ll be using it. One can hope.”

Has there been more fallout when it comes to layoffs from teams?

Wyshynski: We heard from two teams with very different approaches this week.

First, the Buffalo Sabres continued to slash jobs. Pegula Sports and Entertainment fired 21 employees and furloughed 104 others last Tuesday, and said it would continue to pay for benefits for the furloughed employees. The firings included John Sinclair, the longtime VP of tickets and services, and the well-liked VP of communications, Chris Bandura.



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